The Mississippi Delta has its hot tamale trail. Alabama and Texas boast a Southern BBQ byway. Now Indiana is getting in the
game with planned candy and pork tenderloin trails.
State boosters are looking to tap into a growing travel industry niche: culinary tourism. These are travelers who plan vacations around food and wine--visiting out-of-the-way restaurants, local wineries or production facilities like a tomato canning plant--even as they stock up on regional specialties to take home.
And the local efforts, if successful, could tap into some big spenders.
In 2006, The International Culinary Tourism Association and the Travel Industry Association teamed up to study how food drives travel decisions and how many tourists plan their trips based purely on what they can eat.
The results, released in February, were impressive. Seventeen percent of American travelers--about 27 million people--go out of their way to hit local food and wine hot spots while traveling. Within that group, 16 million die-hard foodies travel purely for the restaurant stops.
And they spend more than traditional tourists, averaging $1,271 per trip, about $100 more than travelers who don't plan trips around food.
"[The study] confirms that wine and culinary experiences are a driver of destination choice," said Laura Mandala, vice president of research for the Travel Industry Association.
Join the food alliance
Recognizing that food and wine can be attractions on their own, local efforts to carve out a piece of this niche already have started.
The I-69 Cultural Corridor Association--a group charged with promoting tourism along the interstate in Indiana--took a look last year at what the corridor's best stories were and most of them involved food.
Culinary tourists could travel Interstate 69 to get to Red Gold in Orestes and Weaver Popcorn in Van Buren, or take short jogs off the highway to visit Payne's Coffee Roasting & Frozen Custard in Gas City or Fort Wayne's famous Coney Island Wiener Stand.
So the association teamed up with the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau to commission a study to determine whether it would be worthwhile to focus on culinary tourism. The answer was yes.
The Fishers-based Indiana Foodways Alliance launched in January with $22,000 in seed funding from the corridor association and the convention bureau. Lilly Endowment then kicked in another $40,000 to set up a partnership with Ball State University that brought a team of 12 interns in to work on the project.
Organizers' first move was bringing in Susan C. Haller as executive director. Haller is a recent transplant to Indiana, moving here when her husband took a job at the Indiana Historical Society.
Previously, she worked several food-industry jobs, including a stint as executive director of the Soybean Association of Virginia. She said Indiana is known as a heavy-hitter in the food world for its corn, soybean, duck and pork production.
"We would always say, 'Indiana, whoa, they're the big guys,'" Haller said. "But [Hoosiers] tend to discount that more than anybody."
When shopping for a model to promote the region's culinary highlights, the group was drawn to the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is based at the University of Mississippi. The southern alliance, which has been around since 1977, has collected more than 200 oral histories of food producers and cooks throughout the South--recording everything from traditional recipes to the life stories of the pit master at a rural barbecue.
"The documentation and celebration of food culture should lead to culinary tourism, but that's not our sole impetus," said Director John T. Edge. "What we do is pay homage to the unsung cooks and food traditions of our region with the idea that, when you do that, you build value within the ranks of local people."
The oral histories are tied into specific food trails, such as the Southern Gumbo Trail in Louisiana, and highlighted at an annual food symposium. There are food field trips and even corn-cob bobble heads handed out at meetings.
Hit the local trail
Haller is in the initial phase of setting up a similar program here. She and the Ball State interns have traveled the state to record oral histories, which most likely will be maintained at the Indiana Historical Society. Next, she wants to package the information into several culinary trails.
First up: a geographically based one along I-69 from Indianapolis to the Michigan border. It will highlight food-related options not far from the interstate. That trail and its Web-based map should debut in mid-October.
Then comes the fun, themed options--including two trails meant to cover many of the requests from out-of-towners: the pork tenderloin trail and the pie trail. Outsiders already associate both foods strongly with Indiana.
The tenderloin trail will include stops such as Nick's Kitchen in Huntington, where the sandwich will be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year. The Hoosier pie route will feature the local claim to fame--sugar cream pie--but also will include southern Indiana favorites like blackberry pie. Some possible pie stops are Nature's Cottage in Westfield and Mama Bear's in Fishers.
The group also wants to roll out a candy trail and a cafeteria culture trail, highlighting local institutions like Gray's Brothers Cafeteria in Mooresville.
To be on a trail, a venue must have a locally made product, a compelling story and outstanding food.
To no surprise, the alliance wants to maintain a fun, tongue-in-cheek attitude. Take the group's slogan, for example: Officially, it's "Real Food, Real Indiana," but at board meetings and around the office, it's, "Leave no food behind."
The ultimate goal is to make Indiana food famous.
"We want people to say, 'We know what they eat in Indiana. We know what that cuisine is,'" Haller said.
Passport to good stuff
While tourists are out wandering the tenderloin trail, they need only take a quick hop over to the Indy Wine Trail to find a vintage to complement the menu. Started in May 2006, the route features seven central Indiana wineries. Indiana also boasts two other wine trails-Down the Lazy River in the southeastern portion of the state and the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail in south-central Indiana.
Travelers can pick up a passport at any of the Indy Wine Trail locales and get it stamped at each stop. Once they've completed the circuit, they get an 18-ounce, commemorative wine glass. Since its debut, the group has handed out about 14,000 passports.
Trail President Jeff Durm, who also owns Buck Creek Winery in the southeast corner of Marion County, said it's been a boon. People enjoy the passport because it makes them aware of more local wineries out there to discover.
"It brings people out to the winery who didn't know we were here before," Durm said. "If you give people a little bit of incentive, they eat it up."
The food alliance is also considering a similar passport for some of its food trails, possibly awarding a commemorative measuring cup as the prize.
Even without the trail, several out-of-the way restaurants already have built their following to the point of being draws. The successful restaurateurs said any broader marketing push can only help.
Bonge's Tavern in the Madison County burg of Perkinsville is such a hot spot that people tailgate while waiting to get a table. It accepts reservations only for parties of 10 or more, so people show up early, put their names on the list, and set up camp, playing cards and swapping stories while they wait.
Chef and owner Tony Huelster said he hoped it would become a destination restaurant, but the restaurant's appeal--regularly pulling travelers from Chicago and Michigan--has surprised him.
"It's been even more successful than I had hoped," he said.
Likewise, Fletcher Boyd has done well with Fletcher's of Atlanta, making it the main reason anyone besides residents comes to tiny Atlanta--population 838. Boyd said any sort of group promotion would help put the spotlight on the bounty available in Indiana. Both Bonge's and Fletcher's will be on the I-69 food trail.
"Especially during this time of year when we're getting all the goods that have been out in the fields all summer long, we eat the best," Boyd said. "People are starting to notice that."